The last month or so has provided a lot of travel opportunities for me. Most have been on business, but I did get to squeeze a weekend in there for myself. Traveling in SE Asia has its good points and bad points. Let’s start with the good…In less than an hour I can be in either Vientiane or Luang Prabang, Laos. In two hours, I’m in Bangkok. In just fours hours I can make it as far as Hong Kong or even Japan. Living in this part of the world where a bunch of countries are mushed together has its benefits. It’s one of the reasons I traveled through SE Asia last year. It’s super easy to get from one place to the next. And while there are some general similarities between Asian countries, an hour flight takes you to an entirely different culture. And I love that.
The bad part about this area of the world is that it is still behind more developed areas. Let’s take Vietnam for example…The Hanoi airport would be better off if they leveled the damn thing and put up tents. The building is old, the airline employees are not all that nice and the waiting areas are tired-looking and uncomfortable. Before you even get your boarding pass, you deal with people blatantly cutting in line, people who are standing so close behind you you can feel their breath on your neck (or smell their breath when they cough, as was the case on one travel occasion) and agents who appear that can’t be bothered to do their job. Never mind the ridiculous number of delays the airline experiences and the lack of communication with passengers.
I’ve likened Vietnam Airlines to being one chicken short of a local bus. It is probably the worst airline I’ve traveled with – ever. Not only for the lack of professionalism of the attendants – falling asleep in the jumper seat as the plane is preparing for take-off should not be acceptable in my book – but also for the condition of the planes. On one of my last fights to Saigon, I noticed that the hardware, like plastic coverings on some of the seat fixtures, were missing on several rows. I’m still shocked by how many people on board have probably never flown before. They have no idea that their ticket holds a seat number. Many people sit where they want and get bumped a few times until an attendant explains where their seat is located. Others walk aimlessly through the cabin and don’t know how to find their seat number, never mind figuring out if their seat is an aisle or window. I quite nearly punched a guy who kept pushing me when the row of people in front of me making their way through the plane stopped and he yelled, “Move!”
Vietnam Airlines also has a very strange way of seating people. If a flight is not full, they will clump people together in groups and leave several rows completely empty. As of lately, I’ve been involuntarily seated in the exit rows on most of my flights. I actually don’t like the exit rows. You are not allowed to put your items underneath the seat, and call me crazy, but I’m not willing to put all my belongings out of sight. The seat doesn’t go back, either. I’m not 6’5″ and I don’t think I look particularly helpful or someone who stays calm in an emergency. I have a feeling that in some training course, the reservation staff were told, “The foreigners like the exit rows.” And so now I am getting in the habit of asking to NOT be seated in emergency rows.
It’s kind of funny that everyday I’m learning something new about this country and about working in SE Asia. Everyday poses some challenge. I just never expected that I would learn so much while sitting in a plane so high in the sky!
On the Bright Side,
One of the last wonderful moments that Pete and I encountered on this vacation was to go to Aeng’s house and be treated to a Baci ceremony. Instead of trying to explain the significance and meaning myself, I share with you the Lao Heritage Foundation’s information, as it is far more accurate and certain ceremonial words are spelled correctly!
It goes without saying that being invited to someone’s home and participating in such a lovely and wonderful ceremony was truly one of the most special experiences I’ve had during all of my travels! Both Pete and Aeng teased me for getting teary eyed, but I was deeply moved and loved every moment spent with Aeng’s family and friends. We enjoyed lots of laughter during our ceremony and because we aren’t quite sure what was said, Pete and I are somewhat suspicious that the elders might have married us by accident! Ha!
I found a great article which better describes the significance of the ceremony.
The Baci Ceremony
Definition: Briefly the Baci is a ceremony to celebrate a special event, whether a marriage, a homecoming, a welcome, a birth, or one of the annual festivals. A mother is given a baci after she has recovered form a birth, the sick are given bacis to facilitate a cure, officials are honored by bacis, and novice monks are wished luck with a baci before entering the temple. The Baci ceremony can take place any day of the week and all year long, preferably before noon or before sunset. The term more commonly used is su kwan, which means “calling of the soul”.
Concept of Kwan
Kwan are components of the soul, but have a more abstract meaning than this. The kwan have been variously described by Westerners as: “vital forces, giving harmony and balance to the body, or part of it”, “the private reality of the body, inherent in the life of men and animals from the moment of their birth,” and simply as “vital breath”. It is an ancient belief in Laos that the human being is a union of 32 organs and that the kwan watch over and protect each one of them. It is of the utmost consequence that as many kwan as possible are kept together in the body at any one time. Since all kwan is often the attributed cause of an illness, the baci ceremony calls the kwan or souls from wherever they may be roaming, back to the body, secures them in place, and thus re-establishes equilibrium.
The Pha Kwan
The pha kwan is an arrangement consisting of a dish or bowl, often in silver, from the top of which sprouts a cone or horn made of banana leaves and containing flowers, white cotton or silk threads. The flowers used often have evocative meanings and symbols, such as dok huck (symbol of love), dok sampi (longevity), dok daohuang (cheerfulness/brilliance), etc. The cotton threads are cut at the length long enough to wrap around the adult wrists. These are attached to a bamboo stalk and give the impression of a banner.
Around the base of this is the food for the kwan. The food consists usually of hard boiled eggs (symbol of the fetus), fruits and sweets symbolizing the coming together of several parts, in this case the forming of a community (a stalk of bananas, khaotom-boiled sweet rice wrapped in banana leaves), bottle of rice whisky for purification, and boiled whole chicken with head and feet with claws for divination purposes.
The pha kwan is placed on a white cloth in the center of the room, with the maw pawn sitting facing the pha kwan. The person(s) for whom the baci is being held sits directly opposite of him, on the other side of the pha kwan. The maw pawn or mohkwan is a village elder, ideally an ex-monk who will be officiating the ceremony, chanting and calling the kwan.
The baci ceremony and the steps leading to it
1. Tdung pah kwan or the making of the pah kwan: This task of preparing and setting up the pah kwan or flower trays for the ceremony is often shared by elderly women in the community.
2. Somma or paying respect to the elders: Before the ceremony actually begins, the younger people would pay respect to the elders.
3. Keunt pah kwan or introduction of the ceremony: Everyone touches the pah kwan as the moh pohn chants Buddhist mantra.
4. Pitee hiek kwan or the calling of the kwan: The maw pawn calls upon the wandering kwan to return and inhabit the body of the person the ceremony is intended for.
5. Pook kwan or the tying of kwan: When the maw pawn finishes the invocation, he places the symbolic food into the upturned hand which the recipient has by now extended. The maw pawn then takes the cotton thread from the pha kwan and wraps it around the extended wrist, tying it there. While securing it with a few knots, he chants a shorter version of the invocation strengthening the power of the blessings.
6. Song pah kwan or the closing of the ceremony: Once the pook kwan is over, everyone touches the pah kwan again as a way to conclude the ceremony.
7. Sharing of a meal: After the ceremony, everyone shares a meal as a member of the community.
In Laos, white is the color of peace, good fortune, honesty and warmth. The white cotton thread is a lasting symbol of continuity and brotherhood in the community and permanence. The baci threads should be worn for at least three days subsequently and should be untied rather than cut off. Usually it is preferred that they are kept until they fall off by themselves.
The baci ceremony runs deep in the Lao psyche. In different part of the country the ceremony differs slightly in meaning. In general, it is nonetheless an emphasis of the value of life, of social and family bonds, of forgiveness, renewal and homage to heavenly beings.
Article by Pom Outama Khampradith, Bounheng Inversin, and Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith
I love festivals. I think you all know this by now, especially if you’ve been following ON THE BRIGHT SIDE since the days I wrote from Japan. My first festival was the Fuji festival, where I first lived in Japan. One of the last festivals I watched in Japan was the Fire Festival in Fujieda (Rokusha Shrine Fire Festival). My favorite of all in Japan, though, was probably the Fukuroi Fireworks. Two hours of non stop fire works, young and old, men and women dressed in yukata…that was a very special night.
Last year, I happened to be in Laos during a special holiday called Bun Ook Pan Saa or end of the Buddhist lent. I enjoyed seeing hundreds of candles floating down the Mekong River, locals dancing in front of their homes and shops, and everyone lighting sparklers, fireworks and little whizzers and things which pop. I knew last year that I had to comeback.
This year, I was excited to enjoy all aspects of the festival. Pete and I planted our bums on the balcony of Tam Nak Lao restaurant, ordered Beer Lao and far too many dishes and waited for the procession of floats to come down the street. This is a parade and a festival in one – bonus! All sorts of people walked down the street along side those carrying the floats made of colored paper mache, and little bottles serving as lanterns all held together with a bamboo frame (bamboo, paper and fire together – totally safe!). The floats are taken to the main temple and then to the pier where they are launched into the water, even escorted by a team of people in a long boat.
The floats are all made by the monks in the temples and they are just beautiful. I’m not so good at night photography, so my photo doesn’t capture these so well, but I hope you get the idea!
What was so fun is that there are fireworks for sale everywhere you go. And everyone is lighting and shooting them off. Pete and I turned into 12 year olds and bought a butt load of poppers, cherry bombs and all sorts of other goodies. The large firework we bought, we ended up lighting in one of the temples. You see, the monks, after all their hard work to make the floats, decorate the temples and after a 3 month lent…well, they can’t really celebrate like everyone else. They are not allowed to participate. And most of them are teenagers and young men and you can see that it’s just killing them to not go out of the temple grounds. We were at the same temple where I met Bo and Kit in August, and I was able to find Bo and chat with him again before we lit the big firework. It was nice to see him again and he was glad for the visit.
We ended up hanging out with some locals…it was nice to bring our little candle to the pier among the crowds and have some little kid swim it out to a point where the current would pick it up. (We paid him in fireworks, which was completely agreeable by him!)
I just loved it. I loved the chaos, the beauty, the colors, the fireworks, the music and dancing….it was a real celebration and I am glad I made a point to enjoy it.
When Pete returned from Luang Prabang with his friend Josh, he told me how much he fell in love with the UNESCO protected city. And he told me how he met Aeng, a tuk tuk driver which became tour guide and friend.
Aeng is from a small and poor village just a bit outside Luang Prabang. This is s story typical of most people in Laos. His father is much older, about 70, Aeng is only 21. He has a handful of brothers and sisters. His mother is deceased. Upon being widowed, his father was called to the temple, where he is now a monk. One of Aeng’s brothers is also a monk at that temple. And Aeng was a monk there for several years, as well. (You can remember from my monk chat in Chiang Mai that not all boys/men who join the monastery stay on as a monk.)
Aeng now drives a tuk tuk to make money and pay for his schooling. He wants to study English. His story is similar to others in that most young people are working in hospitality and tourism to pay for their schooling. While Aeng is fortunate to live pretty close to Luang Prabang, others are from villages which are four, seven or more hours away by bus. Those students are usually working seven days a week and live in a shared room (like six people to a small apartment).
After Pete and Josh first met Aeng a few months ago, they decided that they wanted to sponsor him and his education. Now that I’ve gotten to know Aeng, have met his father at the temple, have visited his family, I am really glad Pete and Josh found Aeng and that they are equipped to help him. When Pete goes back to Luang Prabang in December with his mom, I think I’m going to chip in as well because I believe this young man needs a chance to make his life better and is responsible enough to see his plans through and assist his family as well. I’m really thankful to know him and to have him as a friend. In the least, he keeps me humble.
Today was such a special day. We got up at 5am and met our friend Sith at 5:30am to give alms to the Monks. This is a daily ritual in Luang Prabang, but today was special because it was the dawn of the day which was the end of the 3 month Buddhist Lent. Most mornings, men and women line the streets and provide alms to the monks. The offer mostly sticky rice, boiled eggs and some bags of veggies or other healthy items. But because today was a celebration for all…wow…it was amazing! I really honestly believe that everyone who lives in Luang Prabang was in the streets. And it wasn’t just adults. Kids were awake too and they were eager to participate. And in addition to sticky rice, the monks received plenty of treats and snacks. The mood was festive and upbeat and Pete and I felt really lucky to be invited to participate as a local…not just take pictures like all the other tourists.
We did feel a little funny, though, as Sith and his girlfriend lead us from one street to the next so we could give out as much as possible. At one point, we were actually running ahead of the monks so we could get in line and give out alms. Important to note that women, like the nuns in this picture, must kneel. Men can stand.
Alongside of the monks, young boys walked beside them with large baskets filled with all the treats the monks receive. You see, the monks receive so much more than usual, they need to dump their bowls in order to receive more and finish their rounds in the neighborhood.
Once the monks have finished receiving their alms, they return to their temple, divide the food up among all of the monks, keeping just a meager amount for themselves, and then prepare offering to Buddha and many gifts for the poor. All day families bring their tray of offerings to have blessed by the monks, which later they will eat at home. It’s really a special time to be in Laos, and this Buddhist holiday is precisely why Pete and I chose this weekend to visit. Just wait till I tell you about the festival!
Have a look at my photos from Luang Prabang – more than just morning alms!
On the Bright Side,
I just wanted to post a quick note to remind you to have a look at the photos from my recent trip to Luang Prabang. One of the things I love about living and traveling in Asia is the burst of color and the numerous exotic plants you see almost anywhere. A number of photos appear in my album from Laos. Have a look!
Have a look at my photos from Luang Prabang – more than just exotic flowers! Here’s a tease on some of the flowers, though!
The moment we arrived at the restaurant, I realized it had been quite a long time since I had taken a cooking class. It’s been at least the two years since I’ve lived in Vietnam, and so I do believe the last class I took was in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2008…the start of my fabulous travel adventures that year.
Every great cooking class should start with a visit to the local market. I absolutely LOVE markets. They are so fascinating to me. You learn so much about a culture just by watching what happens at the market. You learn what foods are grown in the region and what is imported, what are native species of fish, how food is prepared, what types of flavors or spices go into the food and you learn a lot about hygiene.
What I love to watch is how the people interact. Do they have nice polite conversations? Negotiations on price? A bit of loud commentary on the quality and freshness of the product? At one market in Thailand ages ago, I saw a woman yell at the man who was gutting her fish. I’m pretty sure she thought he was cutting back too much of the meat. In Laos, people were kind, polite and efficient in their shopping.
One little tidbit I enjoyed is that all of the butchers in Laos are women. Our instructor, Joy said that is because the woman were always the butchers…the men hunted and gave the catch to their wife, so they have the most skill at chopping up the animal. Joy says women are quick and precise, and that they make excellent butchers. Makes perfect sense. Why, then, in the US are most butchers men?
Once we left the market, it was off to the countryside, and a lovely, simple space which was perfect for a cooking class. Surrounded by lush gardens, lotus ponds, large fish pools and waterfalls, we set-up our stations and got started. Asian dishes, including Lao food are refreshingly simple…it’s really a matter of having the right and freshest ingredients and the proper tools to achieve the desired dish. In Thailand, we used all organic foods, too and cooked everything in a wok. In Lao, the herbs and spices are similar (chili!!!) but it’s all cooked over a small fire. Even the rice is cooked in a basket in a pot over the charcoal. Somehow, the rudimentary style of preparing food makes it all the more exciting to prepare and cook!
Aside from the chicken-stuffed lemongrass you see pictured here, we also made a sticky rice dip, a soup, fish in banana leaf and coconut rice. The group in our class were all super people, and we marveled at how all of us were using the same ingredients, but each of our dishes came out so totally different. My sticky rice dip, which is like a Lao style salsa, turned out much more Mexican flavored because of my obsession with coriander. Pete didn’t use much if any chili, and so his roasted eggplant dominated the taste in his dip. Our friend Sith, who was participating in his first cooking class, had the most authentic taste – not surprisingly!
My favorite dish we prepared was the stuffed lemongrass. It was fun to make, would certainly impress if served at a dinner party and tasted absolutely divine! Remind me not to let 2 years go by without taking a cooking class. It’s a passion I’ve not tapped into in far too long. I loved the class and remembered why I so favor the flavors of this region of the world!